The Media Is Biased, But Not in the Way You Think
The critics are right. The mainstream media is biased. It is not a political bias, though, no liberal or conservative slant, but something even more insidious: a bad-news bias.
During my decades as a daily journalist, at The New York Times and NPR, I knew that reporting on happy people and places wasn’t going to advance my career. No one told me this. They didn’t need to. The bad-news bias is simply understood.
“If it bleeds, it leads,” goes the cynical newsroom slogan. A quick scan of media sites bears this out. A ceaseless parade of disasters, human and natural, current and forecast, and all framed in the most negative light.
A case in point is a recent article that ran in Axios. (I don’t mean to pick on Axios; this happened to catch my eye.) The headline read: “Rapid nasal COVID tests feared to be returning false negatives.” That sounds bad, alarming even. But read on and you discover the basis for the story is a “small preprint study” of thirty people, four of whom received a false negative. It suddenly doesn’t sound so catastrophic. Then we learn that there is emerging evidence that “saliva swabs may be better for detecting Omicron than nasal swabs.” That sounds like, well, good news, or at least not as bad as the headline suggests.
The story isn’t factually inaccurate, but it is framed in an unnecessarily negative way. A news story can be 100 percent factually accurate yet not fully truthful. The truth is more than a collection of facts, and journalists are more than underpaid, underappreciated conveyors of facts. They are underpaid, underappreciated conveyors of truth, or at least small truths which, together, make up the larger whole that drives public policy and shapes our lives.
The bad-news bias is a global phenomenon but it is most pronounced in the U.S. One study found that in their pandemic coverage, media outlets in the U.S. struck a far more negative tone than their counterparts abroad: 91 percent of the U.S. stories were negative versus 54 percent overseas. The mainstream US media is even more negative in their coverage of COVID-19 than scientific journals, the study found.
By focusing relentlessly and…